Chris Benchetler is climbing a mountain, but he's talking, too. About his family. About growing up in the Sierra Nevada range. About what he'd like to do tomorrow and 10 years from now.
We're ascending a peak basically in his backyard, near Mammoth Lakes, California. It's springtime and the sun is beaming high above our heads. At the top, he'll grow quiet, scout his line down and then drop in wordlessly as he arcs graceful turns on an untouched slope. But for now, on the way uphill, he's willing to talk, to answer questions. Everything he says seems to open a new door, offer more insight into who this guy really is.
On the surface, Benchetler is a pro skier. One of the best of his era. At age 27, he's already cemented himself into the archives of freeskiing legends. He's starred in films from Poor Boyz Productions and Teton Gravity Research, appeared on magazine covers and he designed his own top-selling pro model ski from Atomic called the Bent Chetler. In 2007, he helped launch a new film and media company, Nimbus Independent, which has been rolling out online edits since before YouTube was even popular.
He's gotten more into the idea of guiding and coaching lately, and he's got tentative plans to host a camp at Mammoth Mountain and get more into mountain guiding in the backcountry.
Married to pro snowboarder Kimmy Fasani, the two of them also co-own a bakery and cookie shop in Mammoth, one that makes organic pastries that sell out by the dozens.
That's his bio anyway. But that's not really who Benchetler is. To find out what makes him tick, what makes him so resilient, so resourceful, you have to know about his father, and his father's father. You have to know what's in his blood.
Benchetler's dad was born in Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, to parents who both danced in the Hungarian ballet. When his dad was seven years old, his family, after multiple attempts and one jail stay, escaped communism during the Hungarian revolution and immigrated to the United States, where they barely knew anyone and didn't speak the language.
They lived in a basement in North Carolina and Benchetler's grandfather worked for 25 cents an hour at a laundromat. They slowly learned English and eventually the family earned enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Long Beach, California, where they heard the living was easier. In California, his grandfather became a tailor and taught himself how to drive.
Benchetler's dad, who'd discovered the sport of surfing in high school, found his way to Mammoth, where he learned to ski. He didn't plan to stay. But as the story often goes, he met a woman and all that changed. She was living with five other girls in a one-bedroom A-frame, and just days after they met, the two moved in together and started a life.
Their two sons, including the youngest, Chris, were born after that. From their home in nearby Bishop, they taught their boys how to ski and how to live in the mountains. They taught them how to work -- Benchetler's dad was a contractor and he'd often bring his sons to the job site -- and how to play, climbing and skiing every chance they got.
When Benchetler was 14, his dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and two years later, after a painful battle with the disease, he was dead.
"That was an impressionable time for me," Benchetler says now. "I basically had to grow up a lot quicker than I would have. I had a lot of responsibility. But I'm incredibly grateful for it all now. My dad taught me to appreciate life and to have a hard work ethic."
A strong work ethic pays off in the ski industry. And that is certainly the case for Benchetler.
"We've been working together for the better part of a decade and over that time, we've experienced a lot of situations in the mountains together," says Eric Pollard, a co-founder of Nimbus Independent and a close friend of Benchetler's. "I can trust him with my life. He's proven that time and time again."
Nimbus is in the midst of a two-year project, called "After the Sky Falls," which will roll out in the fall of 2015, and likely include a feature-length film and a coffee table book. Through their work at Nimbus -- which is known for producing artistic and creative videos, often unlike the traditional ski movie -- Benchetler has become something of an artist, too. He's put that skill to use drawing and designing top sheets for his pro model skis. The sixth iteration of the Bent Chetler ski debuted this spring.
"Chris has style that's all his own," says Pollard. "I think his designs, much like his skiing, are very unique."
Benchetler says he gets ideas for his design work from unexpected places, like surfboards or trips to Japan. "I take inspiration from mountains and waves and landscapes," he says. "For example, I'll draw a spine line that drifts into a barreling wave and is surrounded by trees. I like to think outside the box."
Once he's done being a pro skier, whenever that day comes, Benchetler will likely continue to take after his father. He will work hard, and he'll appreciate every moment he spends outside.
Whatever venture he takes on next -- be it guiding, filmmaking, building skis or selling baked goods -- he will live out his life in the mountains with a kind of dedication and perseverance that only comes from somewhere deep within.